Wednesday, December 21, 2011

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Snapdragon: Playing with Fire

If you live in a hoary northern clime and it comforts you to think that those who move to sunny San Diego somehow miss the cold, then, by all means, wrap yourself warmly in that mantle of delusion. We don’t.

Though I had a deft hand at cold weather cooking and drinking, hot punch, mulled wine, and various toddies just don’t carry the restorative powers that they seem to in the darker months of those places plagued with “four distinct seasons.”

from Robert Chambers' (1879) Book of Days
But add a little fire to the booze rather than just warming it? Well, even self-satisfied San Diegans don’t turn our noses up at that. From the simply flamed orange peel over a cocktail to more elaborate preparations among the tiki crowd, the blazing romance of flames and alcohol is nothing new. In fact, one venerable bit of flaming foodways plays well in both temperate and more frosty climes — snapdragon.

Known to Charles Dickens, Samuel Johnson, and even further back to seventeenth century, the eating/drinking game snapdragon (or snap-dragon or occasionally flapdragon) has largely died out.

Let's walk through it and you'll understand why: First, kill the lights. Next, two to three raisins per person are placed in a broad, shallow dish. Warmed brandy is then poured over them — just enough to come up to their collars — and set alight. As blue and orange flames dance over the surface of the brandy and scamper across the raisins, guests take turns snatching single flaming raisins from the mix and popping them into their mouths, extinguishing the fire-robed fruit.

Around the time of the American Civil War, Anthony Trollope writes of the game in his novel Orley Farm:
'And now for snap-dragon,' said Marian.

'Exactly as you predicted, Mr. Graham,' said Madeline: 'blindman's buff at a quarter past three, and snap-dragon at five.'

'I revoke every word that I uttered, for I was never more amused in my life.'

'And you will be prepared to endure the wine and sweet cake when they come.'

'Prepared to endure anything, and go through everything. We shall be allowed candles now, I suppose.'

'Oh, no, by no means. Snap-dragon by candlelight! Who ever heard of such a thing? It would wash all the dragon out of it, and leave nothing but the snap. It is a necessity of the game that it should be played in the dark—or rather by its own lurid light.'
So, yes, darkness is essential, but speed is the real name of the game. For one, fire is hot and the faster you take your turn, the less chance of sustaining a burn. Second, the brandy won’t flame forever. The alcohol doesn’t burn off entirely (an old wives tale, a cooks’ inside joke), but it does burn until the proof lowers so much that it can’t sustain a flame.

You can understand why today’s safety-conscious parents would shut down a game of snapdragon before it ever began. Burned fingers, singed hair, booze for kids (yes, it was popularly, if not exclusively, a children’s game), burned table linens, and scorched floors get one reported to the authorities for child abuse. God forbid some antic soul should knock over accidentally a bowl of flaming alcohol onto the carpet, a pet, or another person and do some real damage.

Fortunately, I have no children. I do have raisins, however, a broad granite counter., and friends expected Christmas day. Brandy? You know I’ve plenty of brandy.

For obvious reasons, I suggest you not play snapdragon this winter. It died out for a number of reasons, not the least of which is safety. If my knuckles are bereft of hair the day after Christmas, though, you know what we’ve been up to over at the Whiskey Forge.


frederic said...

I had played this game at a party a year or so ago. It wasn't given a name or a story behind it other than a grandmother teaching it to them. I can attest to the knuckle hair issue since the first grab was a lot slower than it should have been.

Winleade | JoySpirits said...

Wow...interesting and in the same time very dangerous game. I probably wouldn't have dared to play it...however, this is a great game to verify your reaction rate and stamina of your character

Matthew Rowley said...

Frederic ~ Nothing like a little scorch to prime those cat-like reflexes, eh? I love the idea that here and there in little pockets the game survives.

Hey JoySpirits ~ Given the predominance of sometimes elaborate facial hair among today's bartenders, I ought to have mentioned that moustaches and beards are every bit as vulnerable as knuckle hair to sudden scorching.